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Need for Speed Unbound review: The quintessential Need for Speed experience

Need for Speed Unbound is the quintessential Need for Speed experience (Image via Criterion Games)
Need for Speed Unbound, the new chapter in the long-running arcade racing series has finally arrived (Image via Criterion Games)

It would be fair to say that Need for Speed Unbound made me the most ecstatic I've ever been playing a single-player campaign in a racing game. From the stylized art to the brand new handling and physics model, the game was incredible to look at and play, much to my surprise.

Although I was skeptical about the new Need for Speed (NFS) being helmed by Criterion Games, whose previous NFS title was the reason I distanced myself from the franchise, I have to admit that the developers shocked me with the impressive quality of this new title.

It may not match up to NFS Underground or Most Wanted, but it is, without a shadow of a doubt, a huge step forward in the right direction.

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The art style of Need for Speed Unbound is particularly pleasing, given that most racing games nowadays steer clear of over-stylized depictions in favor of photorealistic graphics. Criterion somehow found a way to combine both in Need for Speed Unbound and create a stylized graffiti-like aesthetic with elements of hyperrealism that come courtesy of Frostbite engine.

While Need for Speed Unbound is far from a perfect game, it undoubtedly has the potential to revive the series and restore its former glory. It is basically NFS Heat, but with more of what makes the latter such a great title for this franchise.


Customizing vehicles and racing through the streets of Lakeshore City, Need for Speed Unbound is arcade racing at its best

The Need for Speed franchise is dear to to me, given that my fondness for racing games and cars in general is rooted in the countless hours I spent on Need for Speed Underground 2 and 2005's Most Wanted.

The gorgeous open world of Lakeshore city (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
The gorgeous open world of Lakeshore city (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

However, since 2012's NFS Most Wanted, my interest in the series began waning, mostly due to its identity crisis which was reflecting in every single entry. I turned to more mainstream racing titles like Gran Turismo, Assetto Corsa, and Forza Motorsport. But, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised with Ghost Games' take on the series' arcade racing roots.

Both NFS (2015) and Payback had major flaws that hampered the overall in-game racing experience, but they paved the way for what is arguably one of the best NFS experiences to date, Need for Speed Heat (2019). There is no denying that my hopes and expectations for the next title in the franchise soared after that.

NFS Heat captured the good, old days of arcade racing to perfection, and I'm happy to report that Need for Speed Unbound did not disappoint in that regard.

The cell-shaded smoke effects (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
The cell-shaded smoke effects (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

While I do have some complaints about the game's progression, storytelling, and technical aspects, Need for Speed Unbound, for the most part, is a great follow-up that shows massive improvements in every respect while adding its own personality into the mix.


Burning asphalt, covering tracks in cell-shaded smoke, and outrunning cops in a high-risk high-reward gameplay loop

Need for Speed Unbound follows a similar gameplay structure as the previous few entries in the series but with some "quality-of-life" changes that make the game's racing ability feel more engaging and rewarding.

Players can choose from a huge roster of preset characters who can be further customized with different clothing options and accessories. Then, they are thrust directly into Lakeshore City, where they can drive around in a 1998 Lamborghini Countach (25th Anniversary Edition).

A good selection of starter cars (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
A good selection of starter cars (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

The game does not waste much time with meaningless cutscenes, which was one of my personal gripes with NFS Heat and Payback. There is a lengthy tutorial segment that gives players a general feel of the controls, the race types, and the new wager system, but it can be skipped without any hassle.

Players can earn extra bank by defeating a certain opponent during races at the risk of losing double the credits if they fail under the new wager system. Personally, I enjoyed this feature because it allowed me to earn extra by just staying on top of other racers.

Besides the usual street race events, sprint and circuit races, and drift events, Need for Speed Unbound also presents players with extra game modes that shake up the tried-and-tested formula of the series.

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The "Takeover" event, which sees players cause as much mayhem as possible in Lakeshore City, is my personal favorite. Racers compete against each other in style to score points by chaining skills, drifting through the streets of Lakeshore, avoiding cops, and causing destruction without damaging their cars.

I never expected a dedicated event like "Takeover" in a Need for Speed game. It offers a cathartic and really satisfying experience while allowing players to earn reputation, heat, and bank, which unlocks more cars and upgrade options.

The wager system for races (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
The wager system for races (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

Need for Speed Unbound gave me a few of the most difficult racing experiences I have had in a long time. I played the entire game on "Challenging" (Medium) difficulty but found myself barely getting podium in street race events, especially when it came to the S+ tier races. This applies to the pursuits as well. Much like NFS Heat, the cops in Need for Speed Unbound are relentless.

Whenever cops got involved in any of the race events, the difficulty level increased ten-fold, which even stressed me out at times. However, that is also what made winning a rewarding experience. I was constantly pushed to my limits during races, a feeling I had sorely missed since the golden days of playing the classic Need for Speed games.

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The difficulty may prove to be a turn-off for certain players who want a more approachable arcade racing game, but it is something that I personally feel should not be changed since very few racing games nowadays present a meaningful challenge. Many still resort to the old trick of using rubberbanding to make the games harder on higher difficulty levels.


Need for Speed Unbound's change in handling model was quite impressive

The modified handling model not only made controlling the different automobiles a joy but also significantly affected how I approached the racing events.

Cruising around the open world in Need for Speed has never felt better (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
Cruising around the open world in Need for Speed has never felt better (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

Having played Need for Speed Payback and Heat for more than 100 hours each, I am comfortable with the series' "drift to win" system, which worked for every race type other than Drag events. However, with the change in the handling model, turning has effectively gained higher priority than drifting. While drifting is still a viable tactic, it's not going to work in Need for Speed Unbound as it did in the previous games.

Now, drifting effectively works more like how it should have in the first place, reducing speed when turning instead of allowing cars to accelerate even while turning. It was a little jarring at first to get accustomed to the handling model and its incentivization of precise turning over mindless drifting in a Need for Speed game, but it did not take long to adjust. Soon after, I was having a blast.

The sense of speed in Need for Speed (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
The sense of speed in Need for Speed (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

While the game does not capture the realism of a racing simulation, it offers a great arcade racing experience, which is what I personally prefer.


Customization and bling define Need for Speed

Need for Speed games, for me, are all about self-expression. The creativity behind some of the body kits and accessories that we can install on the many different vehicles has always fascinated me.

While my love for stock car designs has intensified over time due to playing more racing sims than arcade racers, I’ve always appreciated the modern NFS games for including top-notch customization options.

Some body kits can completely transform a car (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
Some body kits can completely transform a car (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

In that respect, Need for Speed Unbound is very similar to its predecessors. However, Criterion Games has added a few new body kits that are obtainable via open world challenges and race events. They can basically transform an old classic vehicle into a modern supercar.

My only gripe against the customization system is that it takes a lot of time for players to unlock and install the visual upgrades to their rides, in part due to the steep cost requirements of each of the parts. Players earn very little upon winning races in the early hours of the game.

After effect customization is top-notch (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)
After effect customization is top-notch (Image via Need for Speed Unbound)

However, by the time I reached the endgame, I was overflowing with bank and had enough to spend on new hypercars, performance upgrades, visuals, and vanity items. So, earning bank should not be much of an issue if players are responsible about spending it.


Need for Speed Unbound's cell-shaded graffiti-like art style came as a surprise

I was not initially sold on the new art style for Need for Speed Unbound, partly because I am used to the photorealism of modern racing sims. Moreover, it is not the visual aesthetic that I picture when thinking of a Need for Speed game.

So, I was astounded when I fell in love with the art style while playing. I cannot emphasize just how much I appreciate Criterion Games integrating graffiti-like art and photorealistic graphics to create something beautiful courtesy of DICE's Frostbite engine.

The cell-shaded character models (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
The cell-shaded character models (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

From tire smoke to eye-catching effects that frequently show up when you are pulling drifts, rushing past the traffic, or doing any other arcade stuff, the graffiti-esque art style eleviates the thrill of driving in Need for Speed Unbound. You can also customize the after-effects to your liking. You can either purchase these effects at the garage or obtain them by completing certain missions and challenges.

The art style takes the experience of the races, the characters, and the open world to a whole another level. I wasn't initially onboard with the idea of mixing two different visual aesthetics, but now I'm completely sold on Criterion's vision and cannot wait to see what the team has to offer in the future.

The sense of speed is captured by the art style of the game (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
The sense of speed is captured by the art style of the game (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

Need for Speed Unbound also has a great soundtrack collection which really surprised me. I used to play NFS Heat with its soundtrack disabled and my personal racing playlist running in the background on Spotify. It was refreshing to come across a soundtrack that I actually enjoyed in a Need for Speed game.


Meaningful and rewarding progression but dull and boring story

Progression has always been a strong suit of Need for Speed games, something that is rarely seen in most modern racing games. Being able to go from an under-powered stock hatchback all the way to the biggest and meanest hypercars available in the game is something rarely replicated in racing games outside the Need for Speed series, and the latest title is no exception.

Starting with a slow Nissan Silvia and ending with a hypercar is the true Need for Speed experience (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
Starting with a slow Nissan Silvia and ending with a hypercar is the true Need for Speed experience (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

Storytelling in racing games has always been a hit-or-miss due to how the games are structured. Most modern racing games end up rewarding players with expensive, heavy-duty cars within the first few hours, which ruins the fantasy of working one's way up to the best and most powerful cars.

The Need for Speed games, on the other hand, have always been an exception to this design philosophy, and they provide players with a meaningful and rewarding progression system. NFS Unbound perfectly encapsulates the "rise of the underdog" narrative, which is something I find really fascinating.

I began my journey in Need for Speed Unbound with only a stock Nissan Silvia K's but ended the game with a fully upgraded Bugatti Chiron Sport, a Lamborghini Aventador SVJ, and a Nissan GTR Nismo in my garage.

Community liveries are back in Need for Speed Unbound (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
Community liveries are back in Need for Speed Unbound (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

However, I have to admit that the game failed to grip me with its story, characters and dialog. I did not go into it expecting top-tier storytelling like that of God of War (2018) or Red Dead Redemption 2, but I was expecting something more than just another cringe-worthy Need for Speed story.

Cops are a big part of Need for Speed Unbound's narrative and progression (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
Cops are a big part of Need for Speed Unbound's narrative and progression (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

On its own, the narrative of Need for Speed Unbound isn't that bad - it is a story about redemption, revenge, and victory that is ably supported by the stellar gameplay and progression system. However, the characters that inhabit the world and the interactions among these cell-shaded "punks" are, for the lack of a better word, quite cringe.

Need for Speed games has always had corny stories, but some like the original Most Wanted, Carbon, Underground 2, Undercover, and even The Run had relatable characters at the very least. They felt like real humans with emotions instead of AI robots doing mimicry. Even Need for Speed Payback and Heat had characters that I connected to while playing.

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However, nothing as such exists in Need for Speed Unbound. Neither was the story satisfactory, nor were any of the characters memorable, which is a shame given that very few racing games nowadays try to deliver a single-player experience, let alone a narrative.


Intuitive and robust robust online multiplayer mode

The multiplayer mode is slowly becoming a staple in racing games, with games like Forza Horizon, Gran Turismo, and Project Cars essentially built on the foundation of delivering a robust multiplayer experience. Personally, I was not a big fan of multiplayer racing games until I went knee-deep into the Forza Horizon series, which is known for its shared multiplayer open-world experiences and plethora of game modes.

The map of Lakeshore city (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
The map of Lakeshore city (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

Going into Need for Speed Unbound, I was not looking forward to playing the multiplayer mode since I usually play NFS games for the single-player experience. However, out of sheer curiosity, I hopped onto the multiplayer mode of Unbound and was genuinely surprised by its quality.

First things first, I really appreciate Criterion Games differentiating the single-player and multiplayer aspects of the game into two separate modes that can be accessed via the main menu. As much as I like Forza Horizon, I was never a fan of the series' shared open world system. I prefer the single-player being distinct from the multiplayer, like in the Need for Speed titles.

The cars available in the single-player and multiplayer share the same body kits and customization and performance upgrade parts (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
The cars available in the single-player and multiplayer share the same body kits and customization and performance upgrade parts (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

The multiplayer mode in Need for Speed Unbound requires players to build their own garage, which is not shared with the single-player campaign's garage. Thus, they will have the incentive to play through the multiple races, earn reputation points and bank, and build their garage from scratch. This mode features the same customization and upgrade system as the single-player campaign, with the added benefit of being able to roam through Lakeshore city with a group of friends.

Much like Forza Horizon games, Need for Speed Unbound also has an online lobby that holds up to 15 players who can seamlessly initiate races and game modes available on the map. Apart from races and freeroam, there is also a system called "Meetup" where players across the lobby can gather around to show off their rides and driving/racing skills.

The exhaust tuning is back from NFS Heat (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
The exhaust tuning is back from NFS Heat (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

Need for Speed Unbound's multiplayer mode is quite intuitive and easy to understand. Also, I never had any issues with the game disconnecting or booting me out of the lobby. The netcode is pretty solid, and the game is highly responsive and fine-tuned for a smooth online experience.

Given how broken the online mode of Forza Horizon 5 was at launch, getting to play an open-world multiplayer racing title without any server-related issues came as a pleasant surprise.


Few shortcomings to consider

Need for Speed Unbound has some serious technical issues, which not only hampered my enjoyment of the game but also had me lose some of my progress more than once.

The biggest issue I faced with the game was it crashing unexpectedly. It just did not seem to work the first time I launched it. I made it to the character creation screen without issues, created my character, selected my starter car, and then the game just crashed to the desktop.

Need for Speed Unbound easily is one of the most visually arresting open world games out there (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
Need for Speed Unbound easily is one of the most visually arresting open world games out there (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

The ordeal did not end there as I was also unable to get to the game's main menu after that first crash. I had to scour through EA and Steam's support pages to finally arrive at a solution that required me to delete a "PcDX12" file from both the game's installation directory and the save data folder to get the game to run.

I was running Need for Speed Unbound on a PC equipped with a Core i5 8600K, GTX 1650super, 16 gigabytes of DDR4 RAM. The game was installed on a 2TB WD Blue SATA SSD. My machine isn't a high-end rig, but it more than meets the minimum requirements stated by Criterion Games for Need for Speed Unbound.

Day time is equally as gorgeous as night time (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)
Day time is equally as gorgeous as night time (Image via Criterion Games, Electronic Arts)

Suffice to say, I did not have a pleasant first impression of the game. However, once I got it running, I had a smooth and relatively bug-free experience with no further crashes or other technical hiccups.


Conclusion

Need for Speed Unbound is a great return-to-form for the Need for Speed franchise, one that feels like a worthy successor to 2019's phenomenal Need for Speed Heat. While the story and characters failed to impress me, the gameplay, the customization options, and the stellar progression system more than made up for it.

The inclusion of a functional and intuitive online multiplayer mode is what makes the game a complete package for any racing game enthusiast.

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Although I faced a few technical issues initially while getting the game to work on my PC, it offered a relatively polished and bug-free experience overall, something that is hard to come across in modern AAA gaming. With a satisfying gameplay loop, a huge roster of upgradeable and customizable cars, and a really fun driving experience, Need for Speed Unbound is effectively the quintessential "Need for Speed experience."


Need for Speed Unbound

The scorecard (Image via Sportskeeda)
The scorecard (Image via Sportskeeda)

Reviewed on: Windows PC (Review code provided by Electronic Arts)

Platform(s): PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X|S and Windows PC

Developer(s): Criterion Games

Publisher(s): Electronic Arts

Release date: December 2, 2022

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Edited by Mohini Banerjee
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